The Strength of Jean-Luc Picard
The iconic ‘Star Trek’ captain is my hero — in any time period
Halfway through the trailer for the new Star Trek: Picard series, I slapped my laptop shut and dissolved into a puddle of hot, snotty tears.
This is my reaction to the gift of joy.
My gift, beamed in via YouTube link, was the return of one of the greatest leaders that Starfleet — hell, that the world or galaxy — has ever seen, Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Overcome with emotion, I couldn’t watch the whole thing. At the trailer’s one-minute mark, the camera cuts to a brief image of the “Captain Picard Day” banner from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Pegasus.”
Large shaky letters, painted in primary colors by schoolchildren on the USS Enterprise-D, emerge ephemeral before being swallowed back by time. That’s as far as I got.
Along with being reduced to tears by joy, here’s another fun fact about me: I have watched all of ST:TNG so many times that I often brag about my ability to recognize episodes by the opening stardate.
Seeing the Picard day banner got to me because I adored Picard as a child. As an adult, I’ve found strength in the complexities of his character. Most of all, my tears came from the swell of hope for a future where we can all point to the stars and say, “Engage.”
The Picard trailer dropped on the same date that the ST:TNG series finale, titled “All Good Things,” aired, twenty-five years ago. That date also happens to be my birthday: May 23rd. The same day that Captain Picard and his crew said goodbye, I turned 17 years old. The last birthday of my childhood, both in years and innocence.
“A Monday night! It never usually comes on Monday nights. And it’s going to be two hours, not a two-parter, but two full hours. On my birthday,” I tried (again) to make my mother see why this was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
“Monday’s just not a good night for a party. Can’t we do it over the weekend? Make the Star Trek thing the theme?”
“No,” I dug in, “it has to be on my actual birthday, and I’m only inviting people who super love Star Trek.”
Trying to make my mother understand me may have been futile, but resistance was not. She ordered a sheet cake with the USS Enterprise etched in blue icing and watched in wonder as her living room filled with Star Trek fans of all ages: kids from school, one of my managers at the AMC movie theater where I worked weekends, a friend of mine from Drama even brought his parents. The episode started.
My heart lifted at the sound of the high-tech vooooom cha-CAH of the holodeck doors sliding open. Our collective breaths held until the first commercial break. Then the room erupted.
Was Picard’s time-shifting between the past, present, and future all a dream? No, it had to be real. But who were the strange people in raggedy clothing jumping up and down in the middle of old man Picard’s vineyard? Why were they laughing at him? My body buzzed with the uncut excitement of a sci-fi high — anything could happen!
It was my friend’s father who first pegged that the barbaric figures were the same rabble-rousers from the courtroom where trickster Q put Picard on trial for humanity’s crimes seven years ago during ST:TNG’s pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint.”
In a brilliant bookend to that episode, Picard finds himself back in Q’s courtroom. This time he not only needs to defend humanity but prove to the omnipotent beings of the Q Continuum that limited creatures like ourselves deserved to exist in the first place. As Picard shifts between past, present, and future to solve the mystery of the spatial anomaly appearing in all three, the finale reveals that unlike all good things, the trial testing our humanity never ends.
Feeling more and more like I’m the one who’s shifted 25 years into the future midsentence, I can think of no one better, then or now, to stand up in defense of human beings.
The children on Enterprise weren’t the only ones to celebrate Picard as a role model. When I first fell in love with ST:TNG, I was a young girl who preferred Shakespeare to sports and kept the company of books when no one invited me to parties. I was captivated by Picard, a man who is brave and strong but also open-minded and compassionate. At times, such as when the attention from “Captain Picard Day” (and from children in general) makes him squirm, Picard is also wonderfully awkward.
What greater hero could a teenage drama geek, or a grown person, ask for than a cultured man brandishing a fencing foil who can deescalate a violent situation by reciting a sonnet?
Picard is a passionate diplomat who knows his shit, whether it’s transforming the irony of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man!” into sincerity to prove the potential of our species to Q, or mic-drop negotiations by throwing down a jagged Klingon obscenity. Captain Picard orders “tea, earl gray, hot” in a way that is just so very hot.
Watching all of ST:TNG again as a woman, I developed a newfound respect for the layered friendship between Picard and ship doctor Beverly Crusher. A relationship that wavered between platonic and sexual but remained rooted in love and trust.
In “Remember Me,” Dr. Crusher is unknowingly sucked into a universe created by her own mind — because science — where people keep disappearing, and she’s the only one who remembers them. Throughout the episode, Picard listens and supports Beverly despite there being no evidence the people that she claims are gone ever existed.
This isn’t the real Picard but the one that Crusher created, which struck me as even more amazing because there is no doubt in Beverly’s mind that Jean-Luc would believe her. What else can I say about a man whose impulse isn’t to explain away a woman’s reality when it doesn’t match his own other than, “Temba. His arms wide.”
At any age, the greatest example of how Picard is the man is the vulnerability he shows when recovering from his assimilation into the Borg. Watching Picard transform into Locutus and then having to wait an entire excruciating summer to see if he’d be rescued in part two of “The Best of Both Worlds,” is a walking to school uphill, both ways lecture I am guilty of giving my students who regularly binge-watch an entire series the moment it drops.
The episode that follows, however, when an emotionally scarred, post-Borg Picard takes leave on Earth to visit his home in France is the one I return to time and again. In an episode aptly titled “Family,” Picard and big bro, Robert, are the classic story of the older son who stays home to uphold the family vineyard along with the tradition of crapping all over technological progress, while the younger one wins the ribbon for his report on starships before running off to captain one of his own.
Robert bullies Picard into talking about what happened to him “up there” and years of tension between the brothers culminates in a testosterone-fueled mud brawl. Wallowing in the muck, both men burst out laughing at their absurdity before Picard’s mirthful giggle morphs into gut-wrenching tears. He confesses to his brother, the person he needs most at that moment, the guilt he feels for not being “strong or good enough.” Picard doesn’t magically man-up and fix himself after having his humanity stripped away by the Borg. He reaches out to his brother for help and takes his first step toward learning to live with the trauma.
Anyone who knows me well, or has access to my Facebook feed, knows that the first thing I do on May 23rd is watch “All Good Things.” The obvious reason is that there’s no better way to start a birthday than with Jean-Luc Picard running around the Enterprise in nothing but a bathrobe. Watching the finale also rekindles my hope in a future that is yet unwritten. I tear up each year when Picard joins his Enterprise family in a poker game for the first time, dealing out the cards and the final line, “Five card stud, nothing wild. And the sky’s the limit.”
The truest reason I uphold this tradition is that it allows me to time-shift back to that innocent 17-year-old girl who spent her birthday in unapologetic celebration of herself and the Captain she loved. It was two days before my 18th birthday that a drunk driver overcompensated on a curve and killed my friend driving in the car in front of me. We were less than a mile from our safe, suburban neighborhood when I experienced the dark side of “anything could happen!”
If there was a cake for that birthday, I don’t remember it.
The trial never ends, and my healing didn’t start until years later when I finally confessed to my older sister the guilt I carried over not being “strong or good enough.” The strength of Jean-Luc Picard comes from feeling the full weight of his humanity, the good and the bad, and still stepping back onto the starship.